The Giddy Appeal of Humanae Vitae

You don’t need a pope or an ecumenical council to tell you
what the Bible clearly teaches.

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Contraception Chit-Chat

ad,advertisement,baby,birthcontrol,lady,monster-9ebb12da9da64043a4f6da7a4384b50e_h“The very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public, the instant it was blazoned on headlines…. They dare not call it by its name, because its name is very bad advertising.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Of Nipples, Babies, and Not Being Done

“Papa, why do boys have nipples?”

It’s a logical question, and I was frankly impressed that my seven-year-old came up with it. Still, I wasn’t sure where it would lead, so I stalled. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, mamas have breasts and they make milk for their babies, so the babies need the nipples to drink the milk. But papas don’t make milk, so why did God give you nipples?”

breastfeedingMy mind raced, calculating the developmental appropriateness of introducing her to simplified concepts of evolution and the divine superintendence over creation, and squaring that with the associated possibility of expanding her rudimentary ideas about moms and dads and where babies come from. It was like some giant parental algorithm had dropped out of the sky, demanding my attention and upsetting my quiet coffee and Sunday comics reverie.

No worries. Kath answered her own question: “Probably it’s because it would just look funny if you didn’t have them.” That sounded good to me—yeah, I’d just look funny.

I went back to the comics, but Kath wasn’t finished. “I’ll be able to feed my babies someday,” she said. “Yes,” I assured her, “and you’ll be a wonderful mom .”

“And maybe Mama will have another baby, too,” she said. “I’m praying for a little sister.”

*Whump!* Another huge algorithm out of nowhere. How could I tell her that, due to our mature years and biology, we were highly unlikely to have any more children? How could I translate the complex relationship between fecundity and age into a language that she could understand?

Then it occurred to me: I didn’t need to! Technically, we certainly could have another baby, for we had not done anything—nor were planning to do anything—that would prevent it. That God’s design made such a prospect highly unlikely was God’s business, not ours. But it was also the case that God could overrule the natural order, and there’s plenty of precedence for unexpected bundles from heaven coming out of season—think Sarah and Isaac, for example, or even Elizabeth and John the Baptist.

That’s one of the huge advantages of not using birth control, at least for those who see every child as a gift and a blessing: Another baby is always a possibility. Always, that is, because we take seriously Pope Paul VI’s admonition in Humanae Vitae that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (#11).

So, there’s no such thing as “last child syndrome” because there’s no such thing as a last child. And when people—often total all-dogs-go-to-heaven-disney-animationstrangers—see your 15-passenger van and brood of urchins, and feel compelled to ask, “So, are you done?”, we have some ready come-backs: “Who knows?” we say with a hunch of the shoulders, or “I certainly hope not!”

Anyway, because we are really “not done,” I was able to sincerely and honestly affirm Kath’s aspiration. “Yes,” I said, “another little girl would be wonderful. You’d be a terrific big sister.”

Silence. Pause. Then, “Do dogs go to heaven?” And we were off and running again!

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Reckless Breeders

The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day (Margaret Sanger).

Mrs. Sanger would classify me and my wife as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ’em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.

Margaret-Sanger-1916-620x320The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny, nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!

A stark example of this is a recent Time Magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life.” Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.

Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. More and more retiring boomers are starting to collect government benefits, and there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.

McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. A bigger problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.

But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!

Of course. But not just for fun.

Back in 1982, The Roches released their album Keep on Doing which included a song called “Sex is for Children.” The song is a collage of sounds and words that doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative and memorable. And simply true. Physiologically, anatomically, sex is indeed “for children.”

Regardless of how enjoyable it is (and enjoyment here is meant to include both tactile pleasures and the more abstract pleasures of mutual self-giving), sex is clearly oriented to the begetting of children. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they obviously took the biology for granted—i.e., they were selling more sex with less births.

This dual meaning of sex—pleasurable union and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account and honored. It’s an idea at the very center of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae:

[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.

Yet, the Church goes much further than that, teaching us that kids really are the main point. Pope Pius XI puts it this way:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points—even aside from merely perpetuating the species. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”cheaper-by-the-dozen

But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”

Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.

So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. Being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it can. It should.

But it’s herculean, by all accounts—something that another childless woman featured in the Time article seems to grasp. Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already,” even without kids. She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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